DEC 27, 2018 5:17 PM PST

Reputed Medicinal Soil Yields a Superbug-killing Bacterium

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

It’s no secret that antibiotic resistance is a problem that already poses a serious threat to public health, and it’s expected to get worse. That’s sent researchers searching for new antibiotics. One place that they can look is in soil. Bacteria have to compete against one another in the fight for survival, so some have developed highly competitive strategies, including creating antibiotics that will kill other microbes. Soil is rich with microbial life, so it's an excellent place to look for new antibiotics.

Growth of the newly discovered Streptomyces sp. myrophorea, so named because it produces a distinctive fragrance similar to that of oil of wintergreen. Although superficially resembling fungi, Streptomyces are true bacteria and are the source of two-thirds of the various frontline antibiotics used in medicine. / Credit: G Quinn, Swansea University

Scientists studying Irish soil that has a reputation for having medicinal properties have now found a strain of bacteria that can kill superbugs. When tested against the top pathogens that are resistant to drugs, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the newly-identified bacterium stopped the growth of all of them. The researchers, which included scientists from Swansea University Medical School in Northern Ireland, and collaborators in Wales, Brazil, and Iraq named the new bacterial strain Streptomyces sp.myrophorea.

"This new strain of bacteria is effective against four of the top six pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics, including MRSA. Our discovery is an important step forward in the fight against antibiotic resistance,” said Professor Paul Dyson of Swansea University Medical School. The findings have been reported in Frontiers in Microbiology.

The soil came from the region around Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, known as the Boho Highlands. Locally, it’s thought that the soil has a healing effect.

“Our results show that folklore and traditional medicines are worth investigating in the search for new antibiotics. Scientists, historians, and archaeologists can all have something to contribute to this task. It seems that part of the answer to this very modern problem might lie in the wisdom of the past,” added Dyson.

Dr. Gerry Quinn is a member of the research team who was formerly a resident of Boho, County Fermanagh, and was aware of the soil. Traditionally, a bit of this soil would be placed in cloth and then applied to toothaches and throat infections. Of note -ethnopharmacology is a field of study that explores new places for medicines, including folklore.

Zone of inhibition produced by Streptomyces sp myrophorea on a lawn of MRSA. The bacteria is the brown spot, and the lighter color around the spot shows that it is inhibiting the spread of the MRSA which is surrounding it. / Credit: G Quinn, Swansea University

The new bacterial strain was able to inhibit the growth of six pathogens that are resistant to drugs and often sicken hospital patients: MRSA, vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE), Klebsiella pneumonia, and carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumanii. It also stopped the growth of gram-negative bacteria. 

The team is currently working to determine how the bacterium prevents the growth of those deadly microbes.

"The discovery of antimicrobial substances from Streptomyces sp.myrophorea will help in our search for new drugs to treat multi-resistant bacteria, the cause of many dangerous and lethal infections,” said Quinn.

“We will now concentrate on the purification and identification of these antibiotics. We have also discovered additional antibacterial organisms from the same soil cure which may cover a broader spectrum of multi-resistant pathogens," concluded Quinn.

Learn more about the battle against dangerous microbes from the video.


Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Swansea University, Frontiers in Microbiology

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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